London, Feb 2018
This was a temporary pop-up game and is now closed.
Each winter the tunnels under Waterloo station host the VAULT festival with a huge array of fringe and alternative events, sometimes including shows that edge from immersive theatre to game experiences. This year one of the events is a 30 minute escape room called Lifeboat, set on a failing spacecraft – a prison ship, in fact, in which you are inmates. Your goal is to escape from your cells into the escape pod before the last oxygen reserves run out.
This game uses a public ticketing system with eight spaces per slot, so if you bring fewer players than that you may well play with strangers. My preference is always for a smaller group, and having eight players in a room sounded off-putting at best, particularly with the extra time pressure of a short game. As it turned out, the players are actually split into two teams of four with each team in a different cell, though separated only by a set of metal bars. With everyone packed into a pretty small space there was the noise and confusion of a larger team game, but we only had to coordinate our solving between four players not eight.
The reason for this structure became clear in the briefing: it was a competitive game. The escape pod we were trying to reach only had space for four people, and whichever team escaped from their cell first would get it, leaving the others stuck on the doomed spaceship.
Despite the bars, this game isn’t exactly a prison game in style: escaping the cell ends the game and is more the side-effect of solving the puzzles than their focus. It took us a couple of minutes to understand the puzzle structure. Initially we thought our cells contained identical puzzle sequences, and both teams started playing in hushed tones so as not to give anything away to their rivals. Almost immediately though we hit something that required cooperation between teams, where neither could progress without sharing knowledge; but then that turned out to be more or less a one-off, with little interaction between the cells needed thereafter.
The shifts in expectation there gave us a mild case of mental whiplash, and could have been handled better; it left us with lingering uncertainty about whether we had everything we needed to proceed or whether we needed to confer with our neighbours. Perhaps we could instead have been initially instructed to co-operate on a starting puzzle, and on solving that discovered that we were actually in a competitive situation. But both teams found their groove soon enough, and despite the confusion, I liked the structure that eventually emerged: two adjacent spaces that were physically similar but not identical, with puzzles that shared some elements but were different enough that there was no benefit from eavesdropping on padlock codes, and with some sections that were unique to one cell.
I think there was also a background story with named characters, though in the chaos of eight people frantically trying to solve two different sets of puzzles I caught little more of it than snippets.
My team got snagged by (of course) a search fail, but I was mostly quite impressed at the standard of puzzles thrown at us: a mix of creative ideas that required a variety of skills to solve, which despite a couple of rough edges seemed challenging but solidly designed. Based on my teammate’s description of the puzzles in the other cell, that was true of the other half of the game as well – except for two steps that appear to have required intuitive leaps that went beyond what I’d judge as reasonable.
While those two points in particular sounded unreasonably difficult, both halves of the game provided a decent level of challenge, and I’d worry that first time players would find it overwhelming. (Our group of five were joined by three beginners, and they did indeed look overwhelmed.) It’s pitched well for enthusiasts, so probably better suited to anyone reading this than to the VAULT festival’s typical target audience. On the other hand, unless you can assemble a full complement of players, you’ll likely be mixed in with others who are new to escape rooms. The host seemed quite quick to provide hints and suggestions though, so perhaps that keeps teams from floundering too much, though ideally that wouldn’t be necessary.
As an introduction to escape rooms for first time players, I suspect it’s a bit confusing and busy, and some attendees may leave having enjoyed it but also having felt a bit lost, and/or guided through by the host. Players with some experience will likely get more out of it, though may also be less forgiving of the two or three more tenuous puzzles in the game. But it looks surprisingly nice for a temporary installation, it’s small but has plenty of content packed in, and the race to the finish gives it a nice competitive edge.